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Newport-Mesa Parents Must OK CLAS Tests First : Education: School board votes 4-2 to get permission before eighth- and 10th-graders can take controversial state exams.

May 11, 1994|BOB ELSTON and JEAN MERL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

COSTA MESA — The Newport-Mesa school board voted Tuesday to require parental permission before eighth- and 10th-graders can take the embattled California Learning Assessment System tests.

That decision came hours after a Los Angeles judge ruled that test questions do not invade students' privacy, a significant victory for supporters of CLAS.

Newport-Mesa school board member Sherry Loofbourrow said before the 4-2 vote to require parental consent, "It's a matter of freedom. We should give parents the choice of allowing students to take this test. . . . We shouldn't burn this test."

The Newport-Mesa school board, like some other school districts, objected to test questions related to reading selections taken from works including Richard Wright's "Black Boy," Gary Soto's "Looking for Work" and "Father and I" by Par Lagerkvist, because, the members said, they depict violence and child abuse. The questions also ask students to make judgments based on their personal beliefs regarding values and morality, critics said.

"I think the vast majority of parents (of middle school and high school students) would object to this test," board president Edward H. Decker said. At any rate, he said, "The ultimate results will not have any meaning" because of the controversy.

In Tuesday's court ruling, Superior Court Judge Robert H. O'Brien denied a bid by the United States Justice Foundation to require parental permission before any schools can administer the CLAS tests in reading and writing to students in grades four, five, eight and 10.

Brought on behalf of two parents of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the suit has been widely watched around the state as the first major test of CLAS opponents' contentions that the exams violate a state privacy law.

CLAS critics based their suit on Section 60650 of the state Education Code, enacted in 1968, which states that "no test, questionnaire, survey or examination containing any questions about the pupil's personal beliefs or practices in sex, family life, morality and religion" or those of his or her family, shall be given without first obtaining written parental permission.

The 2-year-old system of tests, which also include math, science and social studies, attempt to assess higher-order thinking skills by asking students to write about their reactions to literature selections. Last year, for example, 10th-graders were asked to read an excerpt from black author Richard Wright's autobiography and relate it their own experiences.

O'Brien, who reviewed copies of the confidential tests, said the test materials "are obviously designed to elicit analytical, comprehension and writing abilities. . . . The questions are not designed to elicit the prohibited information. More importantly, they, in fact, do not call for a revelation of the pupil's parents' or guardians' beliefs and practices on the prohibited subjects."

Additionally, he said, the state law is vague in its reference to "morality" and "family life" and could be challenged on constitutional grounds.

The state Department of Education, which has been under attack for its handling of the tests, said the ruling should offer clear guidance to school boards who are grappling with whether to give the tests, as required by law.

"We are finally seeing some reasoned, careful, independent action here that will help sort out the myths," Acting Supt. of Public Instruction William D. Dawson said. "This really should set aside with a great deal of authority those concerns about (invasion of privacy)."

Dawson said, however, that the department will continue to allow objecting parents to get their children excused from the exams.

Meanwhile, fourth- and fifth-graders in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District on Monday began taking the CLAS meant for them. If school districts refuse to administer the test as the state mandates, they risk legal action by the state, said Newport-Mesa district Supt. Mac Bernd.

On Monday, the trustees of the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District also decided to postpone the CLAS tests for the higher grades. The Capistrano Unified School District has decided to continue giving the tests, but to postpone processing them.

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